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Broaden Your Fiber Horizons: Knitting Beyond Merino

BFL, Targhee, Dorset, and other breed-specific wool yarns each fill their own special knitwear niche.

Anne Merrow Nov 1, 2023 - 11 min read

Broaden Your Fiber Horizons: Knitting Beyond Merino Primary Image

With medium-fine, soft, elastic wool, Targhee is a breed to consider if you want to expand your knitting horizons beyond Merino. Photo by Photo by Kristen McRae Bieber

Whether you’re working with indie-dyed gems or big-box yarns, chances are your wool yarn labels say one of two things: wool or, more specifically, Merino. For decades, “wool” or “virgin wool” was all the detail a knitter might expect to find on the ball band. More recently, Merino wool and Merino blends have occupied most of the wooly shelves. But occasionally at first and more often now, you might see less familiar names: Targhee. Corriedale. Rambouillet. Bluefaced Leicester. Romney. Dorset. What do these wools have to offer knitters?

A Sheep for Every Purpose

Sheep breeds come about to meet certain needs, and the nature and quality of their wool might not even make the list of priorities. Some were developed with the meat market in mind, to grow fast or produce multiple lambs. Others are selected to thrive in a particular wet or dry terrain or to care for themselves by foraging or lambing easily. Others were developed for longer, stronger wool; a variety of colors; fleece that resists vegetable matter; or easier shearing. And some shepherds and mills even have yarn from East Friesians, the world’s highest-producing dairy sheep!

With all these different wools, a knitter might wonder what to make of the skein in hand. Here are a few wools you might come across and why you might choose one. (Disclaimer: Individual shepherds may prioritize certain traits; weather and diet affect the qualities of fleeces; and trends in wool change the expectations of breeds over time. These are generalizations; your yardage may vary.)

Beyond this list, what do you see? Check out the shepherds, mills, and farmers markets in your Fibershed for regional delights.

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